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What will our grandchildren hate about us?

Ross Douthat has a smart reply to Kwame Anthony Appiah's column wondering what normal practices our descendants will consider atrocious. If you want to know the answer, he says, look for the morally questionable practices that technology is rendering unnecessary:

I’ll speculate that a century or so hence, breakthroughs in laboratory-created meat substitutes will have put an end to the killing of animals in general (in factory farms and family farms alike), and worked a revolution in moral sentiments that makes my present belief in the moral acceptability of meat-eating seem hopelessly barbaric.

Note, though, that I’m envisioning a technological leap as the catalyst for this shift. It’s true that deterministic arguments can go too far, and that human agency matters enormously to moral change … but it’s still the case that technological and economic trends play an enormous role in determining which moral arguments gain ground, which achieve dominance, and which slip toward eccentricity. The cotton gin launched a thousand pro-slavery polemics. The birth control pill convinced millions of people that the old moral consensus on sex and marriage was outdated and even absurd. The idea of legal abortion became more popular as the procedure itself became safer — but then opposition to abortion stiffened as medical science gave us a clearer picture of life growing in the womb. The moral arguments for vegetarianism and veganism have gained ground in the contemporary West because subsisting on those diets is easier for modern Westerners than for many earlier peoples.

I also think meat eating -- and, much more to the point, industrial farming -- is the obvious answer here. I'd also add heedless carbon emissions to the list.

By Ezra Klein  | September 29, 2010; 9:39 AM ET
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*The moral arguments for vegetarianism and veganism have gained ground in the contemporary West because subsisting on those diets is easier for modern Westerners than for many earlier peoples.*

This is wrong, because many earlier peoples had less regular access to meat than they do in modern times. "Killing the fatted calf [or lamb]" was such a big event more many societies because it marked one of the few times over the course of a year when you might have access to meat.

It was factory farming and agricultural abundance that created the stigma against vegetarianism, not the other way around.

Posted by: constans | September 29, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

I don't know. I definitely think there will be a meat substitute which leads to us no longer killing animals (regularly) for food, but I'm not sure it will be a moral issue. When I think about the things that we "hate" about the past, it tends to be things that people think should have been self-evident to the people of the past. I don't think people of the future will think us barbarians for killing animals to eat their meat because their ability to avoid doing so is predicated exclusively on the invention of a sufficient meat substitute. I think they'll see a pretty clear practical change rather than assigning some moral deficiency to us. Killing animals for food will just be an artifact of the past which causes people to marvel at just how much things have changed. I think there will still be some amount of animal killing for food, just as there's still hunting today, even though it hasn't really been necessary in most parts of the country for 75-100 years.

Carbon emissions are, I think, a better candidate for moral condemnation. Though obviously the technology will make reducing emissions more easy, I think future folks are likely to conclude that we had the requisite knowledge and technology to do much more than we are to address the problem. That we still have people walking around calling anthropogenic climage change a myth will be like people of the 19th century talking about the differences in black folks' brains.

The amount that we incarcerate people is also a pretty good candidate, as is the wealth disparity.

Posted by: MosBen | September 29, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Christ that makes no sense, but Ezra does his part to show he is part of Washington in buying the crap. His view of slavery is foolish and doesn't explain racism. His idea that anti-abortion has anything to do with "life inside the womb" is absurd. His view of pre-1960s sexual morality seems to come from Ozzie and Hariet and not anything resembling real life.

Posted by: endaround | September 29, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

"What will our grandchildren hate about us?"

looking at the culture that is reflected back to us each day,
i would say, mostly everything.

Posted by: jkaren | September 29, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

Abortion itself, possibly, if birth control becomes more convenient and widely available.

Posted by: verycleanteeth | September 29, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

I have no idea why our descendants will look down on eating meat, as surely in the future there will (hopefully) be tigers and bears, and even some plants, doing the same thing.

The moral justification for vegetarianism has always been thin and relied purely on human empathy. Ignoring the fact that evolution has designed both predator and prey to do the same thing: survive.

If anything I think one thing that will change will be the way in which it is prepared, specifically in taking steps to mitigate the suffering of domesticated animals by making the death quick and painless.

Posted by: clarenceflanders | September 29, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

clarenceflanders, that's a good point re: predators. I still think that it will be likely that some technical advance will mean that we don't eat "real" meat very often, if at all. It's just an extremely inefficient food for billions of people to eat all the time. And the fact that people won't do it as much may lead to a feeling that it's a strange, foreign, or even terrible thing to do. I agree though that we're just not going to be far enough away from meat eating to think of early 21st Century folks as barbarians.

verycleanteeth, abortion's a tough one. If we end up having some kind of extremely regular bio-scans which alert any reasonable person to a pregnancy very very early on, I could see the debate pulling the cutoff date earlier and earlier, but I'm not sure that abortion would every be completely outlawed. Who knows? Maybe we'll all be created in nutrient baths and raised on child farms and it will be a moot point.

Endaround, I often wonder if people don't understand that the indented portions of a post are a quotation. You know Ezra didn't write that, right?

Posted by: MosBen | September 29, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

" His idea that anti-abortion has anything to do with "life inside the womb" is absurd"

it is not absurd.
when lennart nilsson's miraculous photographs came out in his "a child is born" series, in "life magazine," it had a great impact on how people thought of life inside the womb. that was in 1965.

Posted by: jkaren | September 29, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

There is something to Ross' thoughts, but it is mostly a cop-out.

Ross (and Ezra) know that eating our fellow sentient beings is horrific and morally vile. All the rest is just rationalization.

Hats off to everyone who has the strength of character to stand up against what is wrong, to make their lives a statement for what is right.

Posted by: AZProgressive | September 29, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

This is a no-brainer - not controlling or curtailing the release of pharmaceutical products into our waterways. Or, if nothing else, learning how to keep those products from getting into our drinking water.

Posted by: klautsack | September 29, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

The fact that erstwhile pro-equality liberals frequently promoted the commentary of anti-gay, anti-woman bigots like Douthat will probably elicit some disgust, I think.

Nevertheless, what #1 said about Douthat's attitudes toward eating meat. As usual, his conservative prejudices have made him stupid. He sees liberals as a an elite and conservatives as the common people, any stereotypical behavior of that elite - like not eating meat - must necessarily be the product of privilege and anything done by the common people - like eating meat - must be practical. The fact that it is more expensive to produce meat than it is to produce other food, and as such, poorer societies eat less meat than richer ones, is apparently irrelevant.

That said, I don't think humanity will ever be as horrified by cruelty to non-humans as it is horrified by cruelty to humans. So in addition to Appiah's list of unnecessarily cruel treatment of prisoners and unnecessarily cruel treatment of the elderly, I'd add the fact that hundreds die every year crossing the border between the United States and Mexico because of misguided American policies toward immigration.

Posted by: dcamsam | September 29, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

There will be a great many things among those who a) have the education to understand society in a historical context, and b) have access to the information that would provide such context.

But just in case, I think people will look back and be horrified by the anachronism of representative democracy... or at least that's what they'll be told.

Posted by: Jaycal | September 29, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

I think they will start to go more and more to the, ahem, graveyard of history as they take up more and more room for less and less purpose.

Posted by: ctown_woody | September 29, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

100 years from now we will have factories that produce meat like substances. These factories will take in raw material and break them down to nutrients that can be transformed. These in turn will be automatically transported to the site where the meat-like substance is created. Waste will be removed and the factory will repair itself, maintain proper environmental temperature, etc. Ideally we should be able to reproduce these factories easily, and of course, the factory will have intelligent systems to monitor and control all aspects of manufacturing the meat-like substance. Perhaps within 100 years bio-technology will have even advanced to the point some of these parts can be "grown" not manufactured from metal or plastic.
The one thing we know is that to protect our moral sensibilities, the designers of this "humane" food factory won't make it in the shape of a chicken or a cow.

Posted by: sd16 | September 29, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Eating meat may be somehow ethically defensible, but the great cruelty in our current production system is not.

Other aspects of our society that people may find atrocious 100 years from now? I nominate the brutality of our prison system, the futility and stupidity of the "war on drugs," gun ownership seen as part of normal life instead of proof of an insanely violent society, and our militarism.

One can dream, anyway.

Posted by: kuri | September 29, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

There's a temptation in answering this sort of question to respond that "people in the future will be appalled that some people today had political views that differed from mine." It's easy to want to believe that our own political views on current issues will be adopted as unimpeachable truths by a future generation, but I'm not sure how likely that really is.

Posted by: tomtildrum | September 29, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

I think that our prison system will truly be the scorn of history. Drug crimes are the main population of our prisons and as the article said, those who are imprisoned are essentially tortured and de-facto executed when they are raped and get HIV.
They are out of sight and out of mind, but just putting these people in "the system" ruins thier entire life. They are surrounded by a new group of educators who transform someone who could have been useful to society into hardened criminals who are unable to generally get gainful employment once they are out.
But everyone knows that in order to fix our legal system, someone will have to admit that we made a collective mistake, that is not going to happen. In the future it will be as barbaric and unjust as the witch trials of the early colonies.

Posted by: EducatingTheFools | September 29, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Actually, our grandparents--much less our grandchildren--ate an average of about 1 and a half chickens per year. They didn't eat much red meat either. I remember living with my great aunt, who was born in 1892, and she rarely ate meat unless company came. Not due to any moral choice, but merely by custom.

Posted by: KathyF | September 29, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: apr2517 | September 29, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

"100 years from now we will have factories that produce meat like substances. These factories will take in raw material and break them down to nutrients that can be transformed."

sounds like soylent green to me.

Posted by: jkaren | September 29, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

Meat substitute as in soy burgers? Replacing a medium rare tenderloin seasoned to perfection? I think not.

I don't hate the generations that preceded me for anything. Not only do I understand that were products of their times and we are products of ours, but they left us a better world than the one they inherited. It's not too late for us to do the same, especially if we let the Bush tax cuts expire. :)

Posted by: bgmma50 | September 29, 2010 10:31 PM | Report abuse

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